I am no therapist, nor am I a subject matter expert by any means. But what I am is a woman that has been married three times, and while I may think I have it figured out now, I’m still growing. The following is simply what I have learned so far about arguing, and what I probably could still learn.
First of all – people argue. A couple that doesn’t argue is simply a couple that is either avoiding each other, not in love anymore (going through the motions), or are so emphatically in love and beyond perfect for each other that it is almost sickening (see True Love – Westley and Buttercup). What draws to one another are similarities in interests and personalities, in addition to the differences that we can learn from one another. I know if I dated myself I would drive myself crazy. What I like in a partner are the similarities that are important to me (I have my list) and a few interests and personality traits that offset mine.
“A healthy argument can clarify each partner’s needs and allow each to maintain his or her own sense of personal integrity within the relationship. In other words, each person can hold on to the qualities which made him or her attractive to the other in the first place. The difference between a happy and an unhappy relationship is often due to how the partners argue.” – Dr. Maynard Brussman
What ‘s important is that the argument maintain a level of respect and achieve an accomplishment. Whether it be a common behavior that might upset the other that is talked out respectfully (no name calling, blaming, demeaning, etc) and the couple both learn from each other moving forward with an actionable plan. The reality of that actually happening is slim to none. In fact the ratio of positive interactions to negative in happy couples is 20 to 1, in conflicted couples is 5 to 1, and in soon-to-divorce couples is .8 to 1. It takes two people to argue, and while one may maintain respectfulness and work towards a goal, the other has to be one the same path in order for the argument to truly be effective.
The Relationship Is NOT Doomed
Ironically, as I write this post it is day of my parent’s 50th wedding anniversary. I have watched my parents argue through the years – from large arguments (my Father leaving the dinner table to eat in his Den) lasting, at times, for days to bickering over the little things that are over before the rest of the room realizes they are even arguing.
Arguments and disagreements are not necessarily a sign of a failed relationship or that love is fading . They are often just a sign that the partners are expressing their own individuality, and this is healthy. It helps to ask whether the arguments usually lead in a downward spiral toward bitterness and stalemate or whether they lead to better communication and greater intimacy.
I have watched my parents go from them not talking for days with obvious anger in their early years to recent slight raised voice and a “That’s enough” from either that stops the other dead in their tracks. Clearly at various points throughout the years my parents have talked things out, come to compromises, worked out what respect is to each other, and now exercise what they have learned. I can only hope that my Husband and I follow down the same path and end up with an understanding for one another and level of respect that only years of listening and compromising can accomplish.
Keys To Constructive Arguing
Combining my experience in failed marriages, working with countless therapists during those marriages, and completing my own research I have gathered a list of ways in which a couple can argue respectfully and constructively.
- Starting off Calm – before you start addressing your concern with your partner, it is best to ensure that you are calm and your partner is calm. This way you are able to rationally address the situation and your partner will be in the best mood to receive what is about to be said.
- Take Responsibility – be sure to understand your part in any argument or discussion. Being able to say “Ok, I guess I’m partly responsible.” Or say, “I guess I didn’t help the situation by….” will open the dialogue and set the example that you are both on the same playing field.
- Don’t Try To Be Right - When we approach an argument with the belief that someone is right and the other is wrong, then the person put in the position of being wrong ends up on the defensive. There is no right or wrong, only understanding and compromise.
- The Impact on Your Partner - Arguments are usually started because of miss-communication or a simple misunderstanding. Your partner may blame you for starting an argument when that is the last thing you had in mind. Be aware of what your partner is trying to say when they are upset, hurt, or frustrated with you.
- You Can’t Change The Past – Although you may feel hurt by something that happened in the past, the only options people have are to work towards the future. Of course, you may want to talk about things which have bothered you in the past, but holding a grudge usually interferes with the productive resolution of current problems. Work on one current problem at a time, not a list of things from the past, and try to discuss the problem while it is relevant.
- State Your Needs in a Positive Manner - It is not helpful to criticize the person’s character; this simply puts the other person on the defensive. Labeling the person with words like “crazy,” “immature,” or “slob” does not solve the specific problem you need to address, and it ensures that you will not be heard. These words are only meant to hurt (and it would be better in this case just to say, “Right now I feel like I want to hurt your feelings”). Let your partner know that it is a specific behavior that bothers you, and behaviors can be changed— especially when there is a commitment to the relationship.
- Effective Communication - Use “I-statements”: when you want to convey how you feel. Take responsibility for your own feelings and assume that your partner is responsible for his or her own. Instead of starting the statement with a finger point and “You…” try expressing how you feel while addressing what it is that your partner can do to help.
- Take a Time Out – This is something I learned very early on in my first marriage and has stayed with me throughout the years as a very useful tool. When I see the situation getting out of control as anger is building, words are being used to hurt, or even getting physical, it is a good time to take a moment to calm down and come back when you both can be rational and respectful. Calling the time out must be respected and honored, and a time to revisit the conversation should be established so that you both know this won’t be swept under the rug and ignored. If it’s a few minutes, hour, or a day or two – be respectful of each other’s space and time you both need to heal from the argument. When you come back remember to follow the rules of productive arguing and agree on a common goal from the discussion.
- Escalating - Moving from the basic issue to questioning your partners personality then question if the relationship is worth it is counterproductive. Trying to gain the upper hand with escalating the argument to a whole new level could only potentially turn the situation into something you could very well regret.
- Timing - Finding the right time to bring up an issue with your partner is crucial. Choosing to start a discussion while they are watching TV, getting ready for bed, or first getting up in the morning are not optimal times to start up a serious talk. When your partner is ready to engage in a serious discussion you both will benefit.
- Crucializing - Try not to exaggerate the issue into the relationship as a whole. Saying things like “If you loved me, you would never have done this”. Focus on the discussion at hand and the goal of resolving through respect.
- Brown Bagging – Maintain focus on the issue at hand without pouring on every past issue ever discussed all at the same time. An overwhelmed person can never fight back effectively and it only distracts from the current issue never really resolving it. Then adding it to the pile of issues to be loaded for next time. You will never get anything resolved, and the end result is just a failed relationship.
- Asking Why – Simply starting with the word “why” can result in the other person feeling like they are being treated like a child. You are both adults, and therefore should respect one another like adults.
- Cross Complaining - When your partner brings up an issue, don’t pile on a similar one to theirs. There is no tit for tat, only distracting from the discussion and not resolving the issue.
- Over-Generalizing – Using words like “never” or “always” only throws your partner into the defensive and will escalate the argument. Be respectful and focus on the issue as it is to be addressed and offer up a solution or compromise.
- Blaming - Remember it takes two to make a relationship work. Blaming your partner for the failed relationship and never accepting responsibility for your own actions is only going to drive them away.
- Using Sarcasm – Be aware of the tone of your voice and the words you choose to go with it. Saying things like “Well, lookee here at who’s so perfect all the time!” are only going to put your partner on the defensive and is counterproductive to what you would like to accomplish from the argument.
- Mind Reading – Telling your partner how they feel is denying them their rights as an equal and will only cause the argument to get worse never resolving anything. Instead focus on how you feel and allow them to express their emotions when they feel they can effectively.
- Fortune Telling – Similar to mind reading fortune telling is telling your partner that they are going to do something before they have had a chance to do it. Anything from making another mistake, saying something in the near or distant future, or telling them they are going to react a certain way only escalates the argument and distracts from the purpose of the discussion.
- Pulling Rank – Treat your partner as an equal. Telling them that because you do more around the house, or make more money only puts them in a position below you. You are both adults and equal partners in this relationship.
- Not Listening – Pay attention and fully understand what it is your partner is trying to tell you is important. Only picking up on part of the conversation and throwing it in their face, pretending to read or watch TV, or just walking out of the house when an issue is brought up only leave the problem unresolved.
- Giving Advice – Trying to be helpful and offering up advice when your partner brings up an issue only demeans what it is your partner is really trying to say. Instead listen and absorb as much as you can with understanding.
- Labeling - Using words like “neurotic,” “alcoholic,” “immature,” or “paranoid” to label your partner are only going to put them on the defensive. Instead try addressing the issue as it is rather than labeling them.
- Avoiding Responsibility – Accept your responsibility in the issue that is brought up. Dismissing the discussion by saying “I forgot” or “I must have had too much to drink” is only going to stop the argument before anything is resolved.
- Playing the Martyr - “You’re right, honey, I guess there really is no hope for me.” How can your partner respond to that? Or pretending to be sick until your partner’s behavior changes— and blaming your illness on your partner is only going to distract from the issue. Focus on what they are saying and work together to resolve it.
- Rejecting Compromise – In the game of arguing there is no real true winner. Instead of sticking to your guns and refusing to compromise, try listening and compromise as a couple.
The Four Horsemen
Gottman’s Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse an Marital Meltdown identifies four main “toxic behaviors” which contribute directly to couples feeling disconnected, isolated and distant from each other. When couples have a high frequency of these toxic behaviors, isolation and loneliness increases. These “cascades of isolation and loneliness” increases the likelihood of marital meltdown and contribute strongly to the likelihood of divorce.
- Criticism - When you criticize your partner you are basically implying that there is something wrong with them. You take a complaint too far. It’s one thing to point out a specific behavior that is bothering you. It’s another thing to generalize your complaint to include aspects of your partner’s person. Instead focus on the issue itself and leave your partner out of it. Even if it is something they said or did – understand it was most likely not done intentionally and can be addressed respectfully.
- Defensiveness - When you attempt to defend yourself from a perceived attack with a counter complaint you are being defensive. Sometimes people think defensiveness is warranted because “the other person started it” by using a harsh attack. Actually, defensiveness is just another way to shift the blame onto one’s partner. Defensiveness is about offering excuses in order to avoid responsibility.Instead try listening to what your partner is trying to say. If you feel you are starting to get on the defensive track, then ask for a time out and let them know you will be ready to openly discuss it in an hour or so. Then be ready to really own what it is that is being addressed and discuss it in a rational manner.
- Contempt - Contempt is any statement or nonverbal behavior that puts yourself on a higher ground than your partner. This is the worst of the Horseman because it’s hard to work through a problem when the only vibe you’re getting from you’re partner is that they are disgusted with you. Or when you’re convinced your partner is an idiot (as the one showing disgust). Contempt usually comes from a “holier than thou” place. Try focusing on your tone and choice of words while discussing the issue with your partner. Treat them as an equal and work together towards resolution.
- Stonewalling - Stonewalling happens when the listener withdraws from the conversation. After several rounds of criticism, contempt, and defensiveness, stonewalling can come into play. This happens when one partner tunes out. This partner will stop talking, look away, and even stay very still. This usually means that the partner is overwhelmed with the negativity and doesn’t know any other way to soothe. Stonewalling doesn’t work in relationships because it ends the conversation before the couple are able to navigate their way through the conflict. If you feel overwhelmed try asking for a time out, or simply let your partner know that you have reached your limit. Explain that the negativity is more than you can handle and you either need a break, or would benefit from a more productful means of discussing the issue.
In watching the video I see some of my past and even current behaviors in how I argue with my Husband. See if you can recognize the behavior in yourself.
The Ability To Argue
Some people are simply just unable to argue. As the Dr. Maynard Brusman put it:
Some people are unable to argue because they feel that their underlying anger, which can get triggered during an argument, will go out of control . Others find it difficult to argue since they feel inadequate within the relationship. Some were exposed to bitter arguments as they grew up so that they don’t want to repeat the pattern of their unhappy parents during their own adulthood. When people just hate to argue, for whatever reason, they frequently make up prematurely without resolving the issue in order to avoid conflict. Or they may resort to fighting unfairly to gain power over and distance themselves from their partner instead of coming to a compromise and strengthening their commitment to the relationship. When goodwill and trust are damaged, the probability of using dirty fighting techniques increases. If a relationship reaches the point where arguments are frequent and damaging, the couple probably needs to make a commitment to resolve the problem and to try more productive methods of relating on difficult topics. - Dr. Maynard Brussman
Seeking a counselor or therapist to help you through relationship therapy, you and your partner can focus in part on establishing new communication patterns, aims to facilitate the goal of resolving the issue.
I have been through arguments that have both resolved effectively and respectfully and ones that have escalated beyond control. Now that I am older (and getting wiser) I now feel I have a good sense of the steps I should be taking to resolve an issue with my Husband. If you feel that there is no resolution, or that your not arguing effectively, it is always good to seek out a professional to aid in your resolution. In the meantime, I hope this was helpful in your journey to be a more productful arguer. Feel free to share your experience, or anything you would like to add in the comments below.
Resources (because there’s no way I could have come up with all of this on my own):
Arguing With Your Partner – Ways to Lose and Ways to Win - Dr. Maynard Brusman
Destructive Arguing – Marriage and Family Clinic